Autonomous Mayflower to cross Atlantic 400 years after original

Mayflower
Courtesy ProMare
A rendering of the autonomous vessel that will cross the Atlantic under the name Mayflower II.

The original Mayflower that carried the Pilgrim settlers to North America in 1620 was a broad-beamed ship of 90 feet packed with 132 people and probably not capable of making more than 5 or 6 knots. Now, 400 years later, a group of marine and tech companies is working on a modern autonomous vessel also named Mayflower, which is planned to have a speed of 20 knots and is expected to make the 3,220-mile journey in 12 days, compared to the original voyage of 66 days. Unlike the crowded original, this 49-foot vessel will be autonomous with no one aboard.

ProMare, a nonprofit research firm based in Chester, Conn., is coordinating the project with assistance from Plymouth University and the University of Birmingham in the U.K. The vessel was designed by U.K. firms Whiskerstay Ltd. and MSubs Ltd. This new Mayflower will use IBM artificial intelligence — including a mix of machine learning, edge computing and cloud technologies — to steer, navigate and perform collision avoidance on the voyage. The vessel will have enough computing power on board to operate autonomously even if it loses communication with IBM computers ashore.

The new Mayflower will also carry a range of sensors that, according to ProMare, scientists will use to perform “ground-breaking research in meteorology, oceanography, climatology, biology, marine pollution and conservation, and autonomous navigation.”

The vessel’s propulsion will be via electric motors driving a propeller, assisted by a sail. Solar panels will provide electrical power, and the ship will carry a diesel engine for backup power. The new Mayflower is currently being built at Aluship Technology in Poland and is expected to be delivered to Plymouth, U.K., in spring 2020, with the voyage to commence on Sept. 6, 2020.